Searching for an Optimist at Davos

I spent three days looking for someone who doesn’t think the world’s going to hell.

Reid Hoffman

CNBC’s Jim Cramer likes to say that there’s always a bull market some­where. When one region is down, the theory goes, another is up. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, however, the only bull market was in pessimism. On the Promenade, Davos’s main drag, a woman accosted me, asked whether I knew what was in the Book of Revela­tion, and wondered whether I had been inscribed in the Book of Life.

Historically, such apocalyptic thoughts have been rare at this meeting of the world’s financial and political elite. A Davos Man is an optimist by nature and profession. Ordinarily, self-assurance is so thick in the resort town, you can cut it with a Swiss Army Knife. But the only place I saw people laughing in the face of danger and wearing exhilarated expressions was on the sparsely populated ski slopes.

Armed with a notebook, Blackberry, flip camera, and laptop, I mounted a 72-hour effort to locate an optimistic CEO. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey of CEOs, released on the eve of the World Economic Forum, found that only one in five (21 percent) was confident their revenues would rise in the coming year. In theory, some of that 21 percent should have been here.

Yet many CEOs bore the harrowed looks of survivors of the Donner Party. Once they trickled in, many having endured the indignity of flying commercial for the first time in years, they were treated to an avalanche of doomsaying. Alarmists, from hedge-fund manager George Soros to historian Niall Ferguson, spun elaborate tales of catastrophe. Ferguson boldly concluded that the United States was destined for a decade of extremely lame growth. Economists were universally downbeat, which isn’t totally surprising. (They don’t call economics the dismal science for nothing.) Those who had successfully predicted the debacle, like Nouriel Roubini, New York University’s Dr. Doom, were elevated to prime speaking slots. Last year, the hot topics were sustainability and decoupling—the notion that developed markets could boom even if the United States stalled. This year, failure and depression were the chief subject of discussion.

CEOs were easy to spot by their casual dress. In one of the strange anthropological twists of Davos, the more you make, the more you dress down. Journalists and intellectuals, thinking they’re going to be around a lot of CEOs and money managers, wear suits and ties. CEOs and money managers, thinking they’re going to be rubbing tweed-patched elbows with journalists and intellectuals, dress down. But the encounters I had with CEOs made me feel as if I were an undergraduate reading Waiting for Godot again: lots of non sequiturs, uncomfortable silence, and existential angst.

At a dinner for CEOs in the mobility industry—airlines, autos, logistics—participants joked about passing hemlock around the table instead of butter. Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson, whose biggest competitor, Circuit City, is in the process of liquidating, put on a brave face. “You know, I’m a congenital optimist,” he said. “But in the short term?”

I asked one private-equity titan whether he knew any optimistic CEOs. “Steve Schwarzman is pretty upbeat,” he said, which was likely intended as a dig at a rival. Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, has seen his company’s stock fall about 75 percent in the past year. This being Davos, I was able to ask Schwarzman and a colleague whether they knew any optimistic CEOs. The response: Turkish manufacturers seemed to be holding up, and maybe Indonesia. “Look for an Indonesian,” Schwarzman recommended.

I didn’t find any upbeat Indonesian CEOs. But the CEO of an Indian manufacturer said the financial crisis was bringing down the cost of his supplies. Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, a networking site for professionals, said he expects revenues and employment to rise in 2009. “Networking is cycle-resistant,” Hoffman said. “It was interesting to see all the people from Lehman Bros. join” LinkedIn after the company went bankrupt in September.

Ditlev Engel, CEO of the Danish wind-turbine maker Vestas, was likewise cautiously optimistic. The United States wind-energy market, already the largest in the world, may be poised to get bigger with the prospect of more mandates and incentives for alternative energy. Vestas is opening plants in Colorado and plans to boost employment in the United States from 1,300 today to 4,000 by the end of 2010. “I could bring a lot of sub-suppliers from Europe to China to support our investments there.”

In a gathering marked by the absence of U.S. political leaders—adviser Valerie
Jarrett was the highest-profile member of the Obama administration—few summiteers had the audacity to hope. The overwhelming consensus was things are really bad and getting worse. But that, in and of itself, may provide a glint of optimism. At one session, one of India’s wealthiest men noted that whatever “the consensus at Davos has been over the last many years, [it was] never right.”

A version of this column appears in this week’s Newsweek.